Recently, police in Hong Kong arrested 53 pro-democracy activists for holding a primary election. The Communist Chinese government made the sweep of political opponents under cover of its new national security law. The same day as these arrests, China-based tech firm Alibaba’s stock jumped 30 percent when word circulated that Jack Ma, Alibaba’s eccentric founder, might actually be alive. Ma vanished two months ago after publicly criticizing China’s banking system. Apparently, stockholders had assumed the Chinese Communist Party killed him.
Juxtaposed to these stories was a New York Times article that ran the same week describing everyday life in China now that the Coronavirus is nearly nonexistent there. The headline of the article was, “In a Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, China Offers Its Version of Freedom.” Underneath the headline was this summary: “Surveillance and censorship bolster Beijing’s uncompromising grip on power. But in the country’s cities and streets, people have resumed normal lives.” Hmmm.
According to the veteran reporter, life in the Communist country now resembles “what ‘normal’ was like in the pre-pandemic world.” “Restaurants are packed,” she wrote. “Hotels are full. Long lines form outside luxury brands stores. Instead of Zoom calls, people are meeting face to face to talk business or celebrate the new year.”
Yes, the Times reporter admitted (via a few throwaway lines early in her report), “Chinese citizens don’t have freedom of speech, freedom of worship, or even freedom from fear,” but they do have the freedom to “lead a normal day-to-day life.”
In the book I co-authored with Brett Kunkle, A Practical Guide to Culture, we wrote that “the battle of ideas begins with the battle over definitions.” How we define certain words is incredibly consequential. It’s jarring to consider just how malleable definitions of words such as “freedom” have become. Pro-democracy activists are arrested by the dozens… a billionaire tech CEO is presumed missing after criticizing his government… but shopping at a designer store without a mask is freedom?
For the record, even if we granted the Times the benefit of the doubt here, China still wouldn’t live up to the Times’s grotesquely skewed definition of freedom. An estimated one million (and counting) Muslim Uighurs are currently detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang province. Inmates are forced into physical labor and sometimes tortured. Women, according to reports, are often forcibly sterilized or forced to undergo abortions. Even according to the New York Times definition, the Uighurs are anything but free.
The Chinese government is, of course, well-known for playing loose with language. In a now-removed tweet, the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. recently claimed that their holocaust-like treatment of Uighur women had, in fact, liberated them because, after all, they were now more open to abortion. Even Twitter thought that crossed a line.
Even so, the way this New York Times piece defined freedom down commits another error. Any grammar nerd will blanche at a rhetorical redundancy, such as, for example, the phrase “completely destroyed.” That’s because there aren’t degrees of destruction. Something is either destroyed or it isn’t, no qualifier is necessary. Freedom is similar. The ability to shop at a mall while not being able to worship, speak, or assemble isn’t freedom.
This is not to say that freedom is without limits. No one is “free” to murder or yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In fact, the definition of freedom increasingly embraced across the West—that we are free from rules, from consequences, from restraint, or from truth itself—is actually license. As the apostle Paul says, license only enslaves us. True freedom isn’t freedom from but freedom for… the freedom for living fully into our created design.
Christians, of all people, should be able to clearly and accurately define freedom. Better yet, we must be able to show what freedom is. Our brothers and sisters in China are not free to worship together on Sundays without fear or oversight. American Christians who don’t live Monday to Saturday as if Jesus is Lord aren’t free, either, if freedom ends up being nothing more than enslavement to every passing fad.
True freedom is only in Christ, in seeing and living all of life as if it belongs to Him. Even when new COVID-19 cases across the globe finally reach zero, we’ll only be truly free if the Son has set us free. Then we are free indeed.